"The Voice of Nature"
Picture a woman about thirty years old, outfitted for painting in the field. This is Fidelia bridges (1834–1923), on her way to becoming one of the most successful American women artists of the 1870s, when she was earning positive critical com- mentary and generating a robust market, elected an Associate of the National Academy and invited to hang her pictures in the Art Gallery of the Centennial Exposition. Now imagine that same woman over eighty years of age. The year was 1920, a presidential election year and the first one in which American women were permitted to vote. Fidelia bridges was born during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, when women wore long skirts and stayed home, and lived through World War I.
Her artistic life spanned fifty years, from her debut at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1862 until 1912, when she ceased to submit works to public view. She created more than a thousand images and exhibited several hundred of them.
This article focuses on that earlier moment of democratic promise and social fluidity following the Civil War, when women, like African Americans, were gaining increased partici- pation.1 It coincides with political Reconstruction (1863–77), which Eric Foner describes as America’s second, unfinished Revolution.2 Eliza Greatorex, Edmonia Lewis, Vinnie Ream, Sarah Freeman Clarke and many other women artists began to gain access to the cultural realm, only to have the door pushed shut again at the close of the decade. bridges was one of the few among them to pursue nature almost exclusively.3
Fidelia bridges was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on May 19, 1834, the third of four surviving children of Henry Gardner bridges (1789–1849) and Eliza Chadwick (1791–1850). by the time they married in 1824, he was already master of his own ship and commanded a number of vessels engaged in the China Trade.4 As a Salem sea captain’s daughter, Fidelia had access to the world far beyond their home at 98 Essex Street, built in 1808 in the Federal style. Henry was a well-respected member of the East India Marine Society, which also included Nathaniel Hawthorne’s father. He participated in the hugely profitable trade that had transformed this modest New England seaport into a global power and, by the early 1800s, the wealthiest city per capita in the United States. By the time he embarked on his career, the Salem merchant fleet had already been hurt by the embargo of 1807 and further debilitated by the british in the War of 1812, which shifted the focus of trade to boston and New york. But the Salem men still plied the waters back and forth to China, trading items from port to port as they sailed around the Horn and across the Pacific. They returned with three commodities Americans increasingly demanded, tea, silk and Chinese porcelain, items Fidelia always kept close by her.
Organized in 1799, the Society’s membership was limited to ships’ masters who had sailed around either Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. Its purpose was threefold: to share navigation information relating to the East Indies, to help the families of members who had died and to “form a Museum of natural history and artificial curiosities.” The captains took the charge to bring home exotic curiosities seriously, and soon their collection was so extensive that they had to build a facility to house it. The building was dedicated on October 14, 1825, in a ceremony attended by President John Quincy Adams. Today it is part of the Peabody Essex Museum, the oldest continuously operational museum in the country.5 Her father’s return from sea would have meant not only the comfort of his presence but also the surprise of the latest objects he had brought from the East: a fan, a chinaware bowl or perhaps the hybrid artform that was widely collected in Gloucester and Salem—China trade paintings, which fed Western fantasies about the Orient. Landscapes and seascapes were popular, but by the 1830s and 1840s, ship portraits were the rage, perhaps including those of bridges’s fleet. These Salem roots insured that, from childhood, Asian art and design were integrated into Fidelia’s life, and would make their mark on her future pictorial production, such as Wisteria on a Wall (c. 1870s).
In 1850, when she was sixteen years old, the headlines of the Salem newspapers broadcast the details of her private heartbreak. Henry bridges had died in Canton on December 21, 1849, but it took three months for notification to reach Salem. On that very day, March 19, 1850, his wife died. The oldest sister and mother’s namesake, Eliza (1826–56), worked as a schoolteacher and supported her three siblings. Deeply affected by the family tragedy, Fidelia fell ill and during her recovery spent her time in bed drawing. By 1854, the school her sister ran to support them was failing, so they moved it to Brooklyn, where their Salem friend William Augustus Brown and family had re-established themselves. Fidelia worked as a mother’s helper for the browns and was settling into her new situation when Eliza died of tuberculosis in 1856. Fidelia and her sister Elizabeth continued to provide lifelong support for one another, while their brother Henry—the youngest of the family—followed the father’s path, heading off to China andsettling in England.6
The sculptor Anne Whitney (1821–1915) befriended Fidelia at that critical point and urged her to pursue her art professionally. The invitation to attend a lecture by William Trost Richards in Philadelphia gained her entrée into local art circles. Future work with him undoubtedly led to awareness of the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art, an organization to which Richards belonged that championed the philosophy of british critic John Ruskin. Her pictures evidence the close observation of nature he advocated as a path to universal truth. by winter 1863–64, Fidelia had settled in the orbit of New york City.7 She then visited a photographer’s studio and posed for a carte-de-visite, a small albumen print mounted on card (21⁄2-by-4 inches). These images were the successor to the calling card, presented at the time of social visits. She presented herself to the world dressed like a Zouave regiment Vivandiere, her skirt extending to just above her ankle, where a dark, geometric pattern reinforces the hemline. Her attire projects a severe, slightly military air, coincident with the final years of the Civil War—a deliberate contrast to the Second Empire-style dresses then worn by women in the parlor—and reminiscent of the uniform of a ship’s captain. She holds her field-sketching equipment: a wooden paintbox with shoulder strap and folding umbrella. Frederic Church had a similar wooden sketchbox which, when opened, served as an easel, with the lid interior supporting a panel.8
She is about thirty years old at the time. The unidentified photographer shot bridges in the studio, posed against painted woodland scenery, but the sitter is surely the one who selected the clothing, props and backdrop. This self-presentation stakes her claim to equal standing with her male compatriots, and to the challenges of working in the field: tramping to motifs; lugging awkward, heavy equipment; spending long hours exposed to insects and the elements; working alone in remote spots. In the mid-1860s, bridges explored the places familiar to the Hudson River men, but relative terra incognita for women. An expedition to the Adirondacks yielded an oil painting, Bald Mountain (current location unknown). When it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1866, a critic remarked: “The foliage of the foreground is finely individualized and harmonized; but the mountain in the distance is brought too near the eye, is too hard in color.”9 Shortly thereafter, bridges departed for a year-long interlude in Europe, and upon her return reinvented her artistic practice to readjust these traditional relations of foreground to distance discussed by the critic, and to replace oil painting with watercolor, a medium used increasingly by American artists, male and female, in the 1870s.
By 1871, she had made her first visit to Stratford, Connecticut, located on the Long Island Sound at the confluence of the Housatonic River and accessible to New York City by railroad. On the New England shore, she discovered the unusual habitat of the coastal grasslands, which hosted a rare combination of wildflowers and birds. The watercolors she created over the subsequent five summers there document the development of a signature subject and the refinement of her approach to composition. Initially, she painted indigenous plants and flowers, dominating a shallow picture plane with a hint of the terrain beyond, as in Daisies and Clover (1871). It was a watercolor not unlike this one that attracted the eye of John F. Kensett, whose purchase gave her needed encouragement.10 The following January, she submitted Daisies and Clover to the exhibition of the American Water Color Society, which offered a congenial venue for her throughout her career. Within a few years, she had become fascinated with the local birds and integrated them into her floral designs. Her approach bears some resemblance to that of Martin Johnson Heade, who alternated between pictures of hummingbirds and salt marshes. She, too, depicted the marsh environment, which often projected an elegiac mood. Watercolors like her Chickadee and Thistle (1875) are miniature coastal ecosystems, with each tinted sheet endorsed by reviewers:
Too much praise cannot be awarded to Miss Fidelia bridges for her beautiful studies of The Edge of a Pasture, Catkins, and others. The first named study gives a view of a length of rail fence with a mullein-stock growing beside it, and other objects, equally simple, introduced for effect.... Miss bridges apparently selects the most commonplace subjects, and yet, by her pleasant manner of treatment, transforms them into interesting pictures.11
The demand for her work could be credited to the subject matter, but closer inspection reveals that her ability to transform mundane subjects into “interesting pictures” relied on a sophisticated synthesis of East and West. She grafted the uniformity of minute surface detail she had absorbed from her early contact with Richards and the Ruskinian aesthetic onto an Asian-inspired composition. Calla Lily (1875) and related works, including Bird’s Nest in Cattails (Metropolitan Museum of Art), demonstrate a dramatic play between the pri- mary subject and the surrounding space. The streaky, uneven handling of the background watercolor washes contributes to the asymmetry, while the fall of natural light on the lily renders its petals and leaves three-dimensional, even sculptural. The resulting tension between the two-dimensional design and the three-dimensional form gave her pictures the effect critics so admired.
In 1873, she was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design, the only living female member besides Eliza Greatorex at the time. She complained that she felt like a machine, turning out watercolors that found buyers as fast as she could produce them. The reviewers agreed:
Miss bridges is unquestionably one of the most successful of our local artists....Her pictures appear to have struck the popular fancy, and as a natural result, she has enjoyed a busy as well as a profitable year. Her pictures are of medium size and possess a delightful grey tone, very suggestive of nature. They are simple in subject also, and their story is always interesting. For instance, one of her most popular pictures gave a group of swallows perched upon sprays of wild grass growing in a sandy waste.12
During the winter months, when she was unable to perambulate the coast, she worked indoors. Wisteria on a Wall (c. 1870s) could well be the product of a look out the studio window, to the intertwined forms of the woody vine climbing the side of the building. Arranging the composition on a narrow sheet, she created a subtle design reminiscent of a woodblock print from Hiroshige’s Flowers and Birds series.13 Although her contact with Hiroshige’s work is unverified, opportunities to see Japanese prints were available in Paris, New York and Philadelphia.
Critics began to ponder the possibility that she could become a victim of her own success, writing of such pictures:
They will continue popular with buyers until one or two fall in the hands of Prang or some other chromo publisher, when reproduced in a cheap form they will become like [Arthur Fitzwilliam] Tait’s “chickens,” a drug on the art market. Miss bridges’ work, owning to its peculiar tones, would chromo admirably, but we trust that no such misfortune will overtake it.14
His prediction came to pass when her work fell into the hands of lithographer Louis Prang, who immediately recognized the potential of her work and offered her the opportunity to “chromo” them (like “google” in our day, “chromo” was so common it came to be used as a verb). Her first project for him was exquisite: a sequence of chromolithographs of birds and flowers referencing the changes in nature over the twelve months of the year. All too soon, however, her work fell prey to the curse of mediocre popular art. For the remainder of her career, she struggled to balance the dual demands of a commercial and a professional artist, continuing to submit works to the National Academy of Design, the Water Color Society and elsewhere. To meet the grueling pace of publishing deadlines, she settled into a basic formula which evolved little over the subsequent decades. but for about a ten-year period, she produced pictures which delighted the public and elevated her from amateur to professional artist.
Bridges was well acquainted with death. by the time she was thirty, she had already lost most of the loved ones closest to her. She was preternaturally sensitive to the emotional chaos it fosters, and developed a feeling of the arbitrariness with which suffering can descend on the unsuspecting. Growing up in Salem would have reinforced the constant presence of death, as reports of shipwrecks were not uncommon among a population that made its living from the sea. But Salem in these years also had a growing art culture, nurtured in part by a belief in art’s therapeutic value. She counted among her lifelong friendships married couples William Trost and Anna Matlack Richards, Oliver Ingraham and Hester Marian Lay, as well as life partners Anne Whitney and Adeline Manning, and John Kensett and Louis Lang. She remained single, however, and throughout her life, she wrote letters to friends describing hours of loneliness, hours which she filled with painting. Coming out of what has been called a “consciousness for catastrophe,” her art conveys an anxiety over nature’s potential for survival.15 Sometimes the specter of death intrudes visibly in her work, as in the watercolor of a bird perched on a grave marker. After the snow falls and the flowers die, however, then spring blooms and nature is renewed in her work, as in the world. Recognizing this ability to convey the fragility of life led her mentor Richards to declare: “in her work” one hears “the voice of nature speaking in the idiom of art.”16
This article is drawn from my forthcoming book, Maeve’s Daughters: Eliza Greatorex & the Art Women in the Age of Promise (publisher TbA).
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
Vera Norwood, Made from This Earth: American Women and Nature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), provides a good appraisal of their limited role in the cult of nature.
Biographical detail is drawn from May brawley Hill, Fidelia Bridges: American Pre-Raphaelite (New Britain, Connecticut: New Britain Museum of American Art, 1982), and Frederic A. Sharf, “Fidelia Bridges (1834–1923): Painter of Birds and Flowers,” Essex Institute Historical Collections 104 No. 3 (1968): 217–38.
Doug Stewart, “Salem Sets Sail,” Smithsonian Magazine, v. 35, No. 3 (June 2004): 92–99, provides a good overview of the importance of ship trade for Salem.
Alice Sawtelle Randall, “Connecticut Artists and their Work; Fidelia bridges in Her Studio at Canaan,” Connecticut Magazine 7 (February–March 1902): 586. There it states that she became a connoisseur and collector of Oriental art.
Records indicate she shuffled between Brooklyn and Manhattan for her studio work; see Hill and Scharf.
Such a box appears on the table at Olana, as recorded in a photograph. See Sandra S. Phillips, Charmed Places: Hudson River Artists and Their Houses, Studios and Vistas (New York: Harry Abrams, 1988).
“NAD. Fourth Article,” American Art Journal 5:7 (June 7, 1866): 101.
- The Collection of Five Hundred Paintings and Studies by the Late John F. Kensett (New York: Association Hall, 1873, No. 552). Fidelia bridges, Wild Flowers (14-by-11 inches).
“American Society of Painters in Water-Colours,” Art Journal, n.s. 1(1875): 92–93.
“Fine Arts: Miss Fidelia Bridges,” Brooklyn Eagle (July 30, 1874), p. 3.
http://www.curatorscorner.com/2010/05/celebrate-spring-with-art.html compares Bridges and Hiroshige. Website consulted on Dec. 12, 2010.
“Fine Arts: Miss Fidelia bridges,” Brooklyn Eagle (July 30, 1874), p. 3.
Alex Ross contemplates the omnipresence of death for bach’s music in a manner applicable to bridges in “The Book of Bach,” New Yorker, v. 87, No. 8 (April 11, 2011): 86–87.
Quoted in Randall, p. 588.